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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
Snakefarm - Snakes Still Alive Shock!
[Later, Anna emailed me to say that Johnny on the new album was recorded as her father was dying. “The vocals were just a guide as I had to pause for weeps but we kept them as the emotion was right. I have a picture of him in a private’s uniform looking impossibly young with a broken smile. He was a lifelong drunk and made a number of suicide attempts with his rifle. I found it after he died with a rolled up piece of paper where the firing pin should have been. It was a note from his best friend saying he'd taken it to prevent tragedy. I knew nothing of his agonies till shortly before he died. He was one unhappy bloke.”]
So she’s in New York, and – it says here – ‘Anna carved out a niche refurbishing lofts, made clothes, furniture and objects from fabric leather and found material…’
Anna, 80s promo
“Well you do what you have to. I worked in a sweat shop. My uncle’s best friend was a handbag manufacturer, so I made handbags, and whatever else – piecework – in lower Broadway in the factory. And then I also did renovations, and I got a storefront for a while which taught me plumbing and electricity, because I had to learn welding and wiring.”
In her album of old snaps on Facebook, there’s one in which Andy Warhol appears. Was she ever part of that scene?
“I didn’t really like Andy much. He was a very cold and manipulative, and didn’t really like people. But he liked kids, he liked to have kids around. I first met him when he got us into Studio 54 because we were dressed in some cast-off Vivienne Westwood a friend had brought back from England. He said ‘They’re with me’ and so we were. But when he took in [artist] Jean-Michel Basquiat – Basquiat was a very good friend of mine – that caused some friction because he, Warhol, moved Basquiat out of the place he was living in, gave him a place to live, had total control over his life, who his friends were. This is, I think, how he behaved with his favourites.”
So where did music sit in her life at this point?
“When I’d gone to art school I’d studied electronic music because the art school in Toronto had all these wonderful machines. This was back when you edited video with scissors and tape on an open reel, and the recording studio was four-track, and we could borrow a two-track and do sound-on-sound at home. They had an awesome EMS synthesiser with a pinboard, British-made, and they had a very small Moog. Anyway, I studied what I could. When I went to New York I just started making music on my own. I had a guitar, I had a borrowed bass, I had some pots and pans. When I lived in the storefront on E10 Street, there were two piano soundboards bolted to the wall. They had just been there when I moved in. When you walked by them they sang because they picked up any movement or resonance in the room, so I would yell at them and they would echo back at me, and anything you did in that room thrummed through these two soundboards. So I started playing with them and borrowed a two-track tape recorder and borrowed some instruments from friends, and started making demos on my own.”
“The Mudd Club had opened, and I was thinking ‘I should just go down there with my electric guitar’ – I did have an electric guitar before it was stolen – but I never had the nerve. I was recording at a friend’s house down by the Mudd Club and I recorded a lot of tiny songs there. I tried out for bands. I tried out for the Bush Tetras. They were very nice, but they didn’t need another guitarist. Had a performance at Tier 3 with a bunch of beautiful German girls called Mania D, and one point of agreement was that we would all wear the same lipstick. Then one of them said ‘So, I’m going downtown. Does anybody want any?’ and I didn’t know what she meant. And she was buying heroin for everybody, and I was such an ingenue. So anyway that was our performance at Tier 3, but it was packed because we were all so cute.”
“Then I was working with a friend of mine who got a record deal with Michel Duval’s Les Disques du Crepuscule, and she said to Duval that he should talk to me, because he was saying ‘I need some more girls from New York’. I sent him my demos. Finally I got a plane ticket in the mail and I went to Brussels and I recorded the first tiny record that I made. John Peel of the BBC picked it up and that made all the difference in the world. I tried to work with them for about eight years, starting in like ’82 until ’90.”
Photo: Jen Fong
Anna Domino, 1980s
After a single and mini album for Les Disques du Crepuscule, where guest musicians included Virginia Astley and Tuxedomoon's Blaine Reininger, Anna first worked with Michel Delory on her 1986 album Anna Domino
“I got Michel to come in and work on My Man and he played this absolutely stunning guitar part. It was just perfect for what I was doing. So I really wanted to work with Michel more, but he was too busy with a thousand things. But then we had a tour of 48 days, 48 dates. The only problem is we’re playing Hamburg and then Munich, and then Paris, Berlin, Portugal… it was insane. We were going all over the place, but it was OK because we were in our twenties and we could stay up all night and live on a bus. So we got to the end of this thing, and I was so in love with him… He didn’t speak any English when we started, but he bought a couple of hilarious 1970s British slang books, like ‘stir your stumps’, ‘groovy’, ‘right on’, it was pretty funny. But he also did a tremendous job.”
“By the end of that tour we were all of us half-destroyed. Each one of us had physical damage. In the last show that we did, the keyboard player was spitting blood, the bass player had a frozen neck, Michel’s hands had swollen up to the size of golf balls. I had tears running down my bloodshot eyes because I jumped into a pool with pure chlorine. My feet were bleeding because I danced with bare feet on the stage. The saxophone player had squished his sax so it only played two notes, the percussionist’s fingers were bleeding. So, we end up the tour and I say ‘Will you stay with me? Oh, my god, I’m sorry I said anything like that…’ and I go to my room. When I got up in the morning Michel was sitting in a chair watching over me.”
I have to confess I missed Anna’s three solo albums Anna Domino, This Time and Mysteries Of America, the last from 1990, some of which indeed came out in the UK on the ultra-hip Factory label. We were busy elsewhere inventing world music. But had I been paying attention to the likes of the NME and Peel, I’d have been hearing classy contemporary pop and would be joining those scratching their heads as to why she didn’t hit the big time achieved by the likes of the Eurythmics [Anna: “She can really sing, and my words are better”] and would know why those records are sometimes quoted as an important formative influence on what later became known as trip-hop. The business side of things screwed up though.
“Crepuscule went out of business regularly every year. They were über-shambolic. They would change address and change the name of the company ever so slightly. They would go from Brussels, establish themselves in London, close the Brussels office with all of their debts. They would sign people as tax write-offs. Sometimes my records came out on Factory. Sometimes Duval was operating in London as Dawn Certainty or something. I could never figure out the relationship with Factory. We were all just pawns. I know of one person who died of sheer poverty while on the label, and another who pretty much lost his mind and his health while being promised every week that things were going to come through. It was very cruel.”
From fRoots 340, October 2011
This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down